A young woman flees abuse; a teen runaway hides a dark secret; an ex-cop chases his own past. All three converge at the harrowing end of a trail of violence stretching from the high desert to the streets of Portland.
November 19 — 8:03 am: The Idiot With the Pistol
Eager Gillespie once told me he’d be more likely to shit a diamond than live to see his twenty-first birthday. I dumped his beer anyway and he wandered off, shaking his head at the cruel injustice of it all. It would be almost a year before I see him again, in the street out front of my house—still years shy of drinking age but just in time to catch a bullet with his face.
The police have surrounded the house across from mine, established a temporary command center in my living room. Doesn’t bother me, being a once-upon-a-time cop myself, though it might have been nice if they’d used the magic word before hijacking my Sumatra Mandheling and high-speed internet connection. Inside the target house huddles the man who’d fired the shot which scattered his family like a flock of juncos shadowed by a hawk. The police have emptied the adjacent homes on all sides, pushed onlookers out of the tactical sight lines. A cluster of press vans are double-parked a block away. The blades of the news chopper circling above beat out a staccato background music which seems tuned to the cadence of my heart.
Watching through my dining room window, I first catch sight of Eager among the crowd straining against the barricades the cops have erected. Near me, the negotiator speaks calmly into a captive cell phone whose mate has been tossed through the open front door across the street. The man with the gun—my neighbor for chrissakes, fellow named Mitch Bronstein—doesn’t have much to say. No one knows what set him off. His wife Luellen, a fifteen-years younger corn-fed trophy from down south, is no use. She seems to be in shock. Aside from answering a question about their little boy— “he’s with his grandfather now” —she’s got nothing to say. I can’t tell if she’s pleased about grandpa or not. The older boy, a sweaty eighteen-year-old with a video gamer’s sullen detachment, identifies the gun as some kind of revolver. “Something big.” Spoken with cold self-possession. “Maybe an S&W 500.” No other guns in sight. So the cops figure best case is four hammer-blow rounds in the cylinder, assuming the kid knows a Model 500 from his left nut. Next best is Mitch topped off after his wife and son fled. But maybe he has something tucked in his waistband too. Worst case could be pretty bad when you spun out the potential scenarios—gun shows make anything possible. Thus the captive phone, the command team in my living room, the calm-voiced negotiator.
Except Mitch appears at his front door. For a moment he seems baffled by the tactical tableau before him, but then his eyes find focus and his gun hand rises. Half a dozen cops or more open fire. Mitch gets the one shot off. It’s then I realize Eager has slipped through the barrier, somehow managed to get down among the clot of uniforms. No one is sure in the confusion, but it appears Eager is in the path of Mitch’s bullet. I hear Luellen scream as Mitch sits down in the doorway, peers at his bloody chest and prods one of the bullet holes like he’s investigating dry rot. I follow cops out into the street. Eager looks like he’s weeping blood. He opens his mouth, but only gibberish comes out, something about Jesus. I’ve never heard him mention Jesus. Someone rushes over to him but he insists he’s fine, maybe a little headache is all. Still bleeding, a slow trickle—the eyeball bulging and red but otherwise intact. He sits on the fender of a patrol car and waves off the EMTs. Eager never cared for doctors, or anyone with half an ounce of authority—maybe why he likes me. From the porch, Mitch calls out, asks for a glass of water. He’s got five bullets in him. Eager has just the one, a .22 from what turns out to be a single-shot long-barreled pistol, a pup’s gun. Ten minutes later Eager has vanished, no one knows where or how, and Mitch still wants his glass of water. He has to settle for an IV as the EMTs pack his wounds.
Mitch will claim he found the pistol in his older son’s bedroom. Jase is the kid’s name, from Mitch’s first marriage. The initial discharge, the one which sent Jase and Luellen scrambling, was supposedly an accident. He’d barged into the kitchen to confront his son, fired a shot without meaning to. Anger and a too-tight grip is his story. When the others ran and the cops showed, he panicked, replaced the bullet with one he’d found in a box under Jase’s pillow. Ashamed he was such a poor parent he didn’t know his son even had a weapon. He couldn’t stand the thought of what that meant about who he was. The second bullet was for himself. Then the phone bounced through the door and the calm voice talked to him. Just come to me, friend, and we’ll work this out. And so he’d come walking through the doorway and lifted the gun to offer it to the calm voice. When the cops all started shooting he’d fired again. Another mistake, a reflexive clench. Bang. He never meant to hurt anyone. Just wanted to know where his son got a goddamn gun.
No one would be buying Mitch’s bullshit. His wife has a darkening bruise on her cheek she claims she got on the way out the door, but everyone knows it’s from the back of a man’s hand. Even worse, a kid took a bullet in the face—a dipshit stray maybe, but one you couldn’t help but like the way you like any puppy anxious to please. Half the cops present have rousted or arrested Eager at one time or another. No one is gonna believe the idiot with the pistol. Especially when they get inside the house and find a bullet hole in the kitchen wall big enough to shove your fist through and blood spatter like a spilled jar of paint trailing out the back door.
But Mitch isn’t my concern. I’m more interested in what brought Eager Gillespie to my street this morning out of so many, and where he’s gone so fast with a bullet in his head. Jesus. And I can’t help but recall Eager had once complained to me that some asshole stole his piece, a single-shot .22 he carried for protection, right out of his bindle as he slept under the Burnside Bridge.